Abuse survivors and their advocates plan to rally outside a national meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Birmingham, Alabama, as America’s largest Protestant denomination wrestles this week with how to address clerical sexual abuse and cover-ups of the abuse within its ranks.
Current and former Southern Baptists, as well as survivors and advocates from other denominations, will be gathering at the “For Such a Time as This” rally just outside the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Center on Tuesday evening. The protesters are demanding concrete change ― including the creation of a clergy sex offender database for the SBC’s network of 47,000 churches and mandatory sex-abuse prevention training for all SBC pastors, staff and volunteers. They are also asking that the denomination, which approves only of male pastors, make a commitment to respect women.
The group is bringing a large foam-board “millstone” to the rally, a reference to Jesus’ warnings in Scripture that those who harm children would be better off having a “large millstone hung around their neck” and drowning in the sea.
The harsh imagery is meant to remind Southern Baptists of how critical the issue of sexual abuse is, according to Rev. Ashley Easter, the rally’s spokesperson who was ordained through the Progressive Christian Alliance.
“Jesus uses strong words for those who harm children, and we believe the SBC needs a reminder of Jesus’ strong words,” Easter told HuffPost.
The rally is set to take place as thousands of Southern Baptist delegates from around the country gather inside the Birmingham convention center for the denomination’s annual meeting. For many delegates and onlookers, the priority on this year’s agenda is voting on key reforms aimed at holding member churches accountable for mishandling abuse allegations.
For over a year, the 14.8 million-member Southern Baptist Convention has been reckoning with the Me Too movement, which has toppled prominent leaders in the denomination and encouraged a groundswell of evangelical women to speak up and demand change. Last year, delegates to the annual meeting passed resolutions denouncing all forms of abuse, affirming women’s dignity and calling for “sexual purity” among pastors.
Calls for more action increased this year after an investigation by the San Antonio Express-News and Houston Chronicle revealed that about 380 Southern Baptist pastors, Sunday school teachers, deacons and church volunteers have been credibly accused of sexual misconduct since 1998. The investigation suggested that at least 35 SBC pastors, employees or volunteers who exhibited predatory behavior went on to find jobs at other churches.
J.D. Greear, a North Carolina pastor who was elected president of the SBC last year, formed a sexual abuse advisory group to study the issue of sexual abuse. On Saturday, the group released a lengthy report with first-person accounts from survivors, detailed recommendations on how to prevent abuse and handle abuse allegations, and links to a sex abuse training curriculum for pastors and lay leaders.
Greear told The Associated Press that he was “thankful” to the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News for shining a light on the problem.
“Only when sin is exposed to the light of truth, true repentance, healing, and change can begin,” he said.
In the past, survivors and advocates’ demands for change have been thwarted by the SBC’s doctrine of local autonomy. The SBC views itself as a network of Baptist congregations, each of which is independent and self-governing. This doctrine of autonomy has been used to argue against the creation of a denomination-wide sex offender database, for example.
At the same time, the SBC’s congregations do take some actions together ― such as funding joint missionary work and kicking out churches for affirming LGBTQ relationships.
This week, delegates are considering an option to “disfellowship” or distance the denomination from churches that mishandle sexual abuse allegations. They may also consider options for creating a sex offender database.
Easter said she believes the SBC is primarily concerned with preserving its image at the moment.
“They are trying to save face, push out statements, and suggestions for constitutional changes that will take years to approve and implement... if anything happens at all,” Easter told HuffPost in an email. “But children and vulnerable adults are being harmed NOW.”
This is the second time the “For Such a Time as This” rally will be held outside the SBC’s annual meeting. The title of the rally is based on a Bible verse about Queen Esther, who risked her life to speak up about the persecution of the Jewish people.
The rally will feature speeches from survivors of sexual abuse in Southern Baptist circles, including Jules Woodson, whose decision to go public with her story eventually led to the resignation of the person she says abused her, a Southern Baptist pastor in Tennessee.
Dwight McKissic, a Southern Baptist pastor in Texas, is also scheduled to speak at the rally. He told HuffPost that he supported the rally’s goals.
“The message I hope to send out is first, WE CARE about the victims and survivors,” McKissic wrote in an email. “The SBC needs to do all that’s within their power to repair, restore, and make whole all of the survivors of abuse. The SBC needs to track predators in order to protect others from becoming victims of abuse.”
Cheryl Summers is an abuse survivor, a former Southern Baptist and the founder of the “For Such A Time As This” rally. In a recent blog, Summers pointed out that after a 2007 ABC News investigation into “predator preachers,” the SBC passed a unanimous resolution condemning sexual abuse. The denomination published a study on sexual abuse in 2008.
Summers said the time for “sweeping statements” is long gone ― and that she and other advocates hope to see real, concrete change emerge from this year’s meeting.
“A unanimous resolution condemning abuse is not action. Blog posts and press releases about abuse is not action ... Words matter. Actions matter more,” Summers wrote. “In 2019, we must remember that we’ve been here before. The Southern Baptist Convention must stop talking about abuse and must do better.”
This article has been updated with comment from Dwight McKissic.